James Bond is getting it from all sides in Skyfall (2012), the new 007 picture and the best in the Daniel Craig era. He still has an egomaniacal villain to contend with but he’s also being threatened by the changing times. Where exactly does James Bond, superspy, find himself in today’s world when it’s nearly impossible to have a secret identity and wars can be fought on a computer in your pajamas? It seems the digital age wants to eradicate the James Bonds from the world, making crime and its prevention just a matter of keystrokes. Yet for all its advances, Skyfall reminds us that we’ll always need James Bond because every now and then a trigger has to be pulled. “Or not pulled,” James says. “It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.” Good point.
It’s funny that this action series (Skyfall is the 23rd installment), which has never been keen on big ideas, introduces this rather large question about Bond’s place in the digital age while pairing that with one of the franchise’s least ambitious plots. In a series known for megalomaniacs intent on world domination, here we have a man, Silva (Javier Bardem), a former agent who simply wants to enact revenge upon Bond (Craig) and the boss of the 00s, M (Judi Dench), who Silva feels hung him out to dry years ago on a mission that went bad. Just because the villain’s aim is relatively meager doesn’t mean that the movie feels insufficient. This is an exciting movie, gritty and tough but pulse-quickening and fun.
It starts off with a bang during the pre-credits sequence as Bond pursues a man with a Suessian verve: on foot, in a car, on a motorcycle, on a train and with a crane. The exhilarating chase ends with Bond plummeting to what would be the death of any normal man, and the opening music video begins with the assumption that Bond has died, which, of course, we know he hasn’t.
Though Bond’s adventure fails to kill him, it reminds him that he’s mortal, something he grows tired of being confronted with. The debacle sees M getting pushed out of MI6 by the bureaucrat Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who also intimates that Bond may be getting too long in the tooth.
More troubling still, Bond doesn’t seem to be able to shoot as accurately as he once did or run as fast as he’s accustomed to, and his coworkers in the service seem younger and younger, including fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the techno-savvy Q (Ben Whishaw), who only begrudgingly acknowledges Bond’s necessity as a superspy in a world connected by computers. Given Bond’s fragile state of mind, he leaps at the chance to go to Shanghai to track down Silva, who has hacked into MI6 itself and destroyed its headquarters. Bond gets his man but finds himself hurtling into a trap.
It was at this point that I was struck by how much Skyfall reminded me of The Dark Knight (2008), especially in its interplay between its moody hero and its eccentric villain. Bardem isn’t half as goofy as Heath Ledger’s Joker, but he’s definitely unglued, and it struck me how deeply modern action pictures, even the previously impregnable Bond series, are influenced by Christopher Nolan’s psychological, hyper-realistic, yet-still-over-the-top Batman movies. Bond captures Silva and brings him to custody at MI6, a move that turns out to be part of Silva’s grand plan, a plot point lifted from The Dark Knight. More than cosmetic similarities, however, Skyfall achieves a Nolanesque feeling that Bond is not only in danger from the man he’s fighting but from the time he’s living in. This adds an extra dimension to be sure, but I felt slightly sentimental for the Bond who easily occupied a world that was his playground and was only temporarily bothered from his days of booze and women before throwing out the toughs that briefly threatened it.
I remain nonplussed by the direction of the series since Craig has taken over (it’s not Craig’s fault, who is a good Bond), which seems to be increasingly interested in Bond’s back story, which is totally extraneous to his character. Please, spare Bond the brooding Bruce Wayne treatment; this is one hero who’s best at his least complicated. Further, fans of the series come to expect a number of things from these movies that the makers of the last three seem to willfully withhold (don’t hold your breath for “shaken, not stirred,” for example, it isn’t here). The biggest victim has been the tremendous theme, which used to run constantly through a Bond picture; now one has to wait until the end credits to hear it in its entirety. These lapses in the safekeeping of Bond’s legacy are relatively minor (though that almost makes them more irritating, I mean, how difficult would it have been to retain the iris-lense gun barrell opening, scrapped here for the first time?) and aren’t enough to sink Skyfall, which captures the spirit of what Bond is about better than any since the early Pierce Brosnan days. I still feel Craig could use more cheek, but he’s allowed to walk the walk completely for the first time here, even if it’s more humorlessly than I’d like.
Just the same, there are a number of good set-pieces, none better than the opening chase, but also a thrilling pursuit in London’s tube as Silva tries to get to M. It deflates a little for its final act when Bond and M hole up to wait for Silva and his cabal in Bond’s childhood home (which looks suspiciously like Nolan’s Wayne Manor) but not a lot.
Much of Skyfall’s success is owed to Bardem, who creates the first memorable villain of the Craig era, a lunatic coming apart at the seams. (I liked Mathieu Amalric in the previous Quantum of Solace , who reminded me of Polanski in Chinatown , but he wasn’t as well served by the script as Bardem is here.) His first scene is his best as he relates a story about rats while walking toward a tied-up Bond. This is all in one shot and Bardem leisurely strolls toward the camera, emerging from a blur into focus, like something out of Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Silva himself is something like Lawrence: effete and unusual, driven and convinced of his own greatness. This scene is gripping, complete with a homoerotic turn; it’s a shame the movie never slows down enough afterward for a reprise. Bardem brings intelligence and danger to the part and he is engrossing.
This is a very good movie, one that’s exciting and smart. There is a scene when the mending Bond is put under psychoanalytical evaluation and he is asked to participate in word association. After Bond rolls his eyes through the first few suggestions (Psychologist: “Agent?” Bond: “Provocateur.”), the psychologist says “Skyfall” and it stops Bond in his tracks. Well, I’ll associate a word with it, James:“excellent.”